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"Salut les moutons!" someone yelled to a troop of sheep.
The path crossed back and forth through a wide, shallow river that we drank from. Glacier water is to tap water as English beer is to diet soda; it's full of food, depth, anecdotes. When you swallow it, you wait a second to see if something will happen inside. I sipped it at every opportunity—and splashed it on my face and down my back, which was sweating under my pack. After about two hours we reached a glacial lake whose extraordinary aquamarine color was disturbing to look at because the color was so vibrant, almost garish, next to the green grass. A few of us took a quick dip 4 in it; it was like swimming in three elements: water, green and cold.
"Nice cow," Hanni said while drying off and patting the forehead of one of the cows sedately munching buttercups near the lake.
The cabin, the Wildhornh�tte, 1929, is perched at the end of a narrow rocky valley. It's a square stone building with shutters painted red and white, matching the colors of the Swiss flag that's planted at every shelter in the mountains. It's a comforting patch of cloth that can tame the most bizarre landscape. Because of mist, we couldn't see the craggy peaks we'd be climbing early in the morning to get up to the glacier. We knew they were there, the same way a person buying a paper or admiring a pigeon on the sidewalk at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue knows that the Empire State Building is there.
After packing in great quantities of soup, meat, rice, chocolate and tea, we retired to the sleeping quarters—dormitories where thin mattresses are laid out on long wood platforms. A Swiss mountain cabin is a wonderful place to go through the motions of sleeping without actually sleeping; there are few circumstances where such uncomfortable conditions are so comfortable. The air is thick with robust exhaustion, fitful snoring, the aroma of wool socks, muscles in the making. The pillowcases are red-checkered. The walls, exuding a wood scent, seem more adept than most walls at keeping the outside outside. If one actually does sleep, it doesn't feel like sleep; it's more a preliminary chairlift ride that transports some part of one's being up to the top of the mountain. It's not something passive, done at the end of a day; it's an activity done at the beginning of the next day.
That night there were wild thunderstorms, almost as loud as the Belgian Boy Scouts had been at dinner, loud enough to get past the foreign elbow that spent half the night in my ear. When we got up in the morning it was pitch black and raining so hard we thought we wouldn't be able to get up to the glacier. But after an hour spent drinking bowlfuls of hot tea and talking with the Wildhornh�tte's cook, a Swiss named Peter Zenn, who works in an undershirt and an imposing hat made out of a folded newspaper, the weather cleared and we took off.
For two slow hours we climbed up a steep rocky slope, and then we reached the foot of the glacier. You couldn't miss it: Covered with snow, it was an immense sweep of dazzling white with little hillocks here and there swelling like dunes. We couldn't see the top. Finally we got to use the ropes. Ropes. I'd been wishing the whole day before that I could have had one tied around my waist—even in the bus—just for the feeling of security it would impart. (If a person wants a little more confidence during a job interview, she would do well to tie a rope around her waist.) People tie themselves to other people on a mountain in case somebody falls down a crevasse or off the mountain. Usually the ropemates can rescue the fallen person, but sometimes everybody falls. (A week before I went to ITC, I spent an evening in Zermatt watching along with other tourists as a helicopter transported something dangling at the end of a long cable; it turned out to be the body of one of four Japanese hikers who had fallen together down the north face of the Matterhorn. The locals don't even bother to look up, it happens so often.)
The three campers I was tied to, at distances of about 18 feet, were very friendly, and the middle two were in love; their frequent conferences made the total length of our rope often shorter than it should have been. But none of us fell down a crevasse. We saw crevasses—gaping blue-toothed fissures in the ice, awesome cracks that would undo a schizophrenic passerby. We may have stepped on a crevasse without knowing it; packed snow on the ice can conceal an fissure.
On a glacier each step you take is tentative, even if your path has been tested by someone in front of you. Walking on a glacier is like being seven and walking across someone's backyard where you're not supposed to be and the old geezer inside is rumored to have a shotgun. It's as delicate a journey as tiptoeing across somebody's mind—a sudden thought could snap through the ice and send you toppling. One result of having to look down so much at where you're stepping is that you don't tend to look around; you watch your boots schlomp, schlomp, schlomp, trudging through the snow, trying not to step on slack rope. You say little mantras to yourself; you make up jingles to help you forget the muscles that have turned into spiked iron balls in your thighs; you make wild promises to yourself ("O.K., one more step and you can have...") and suddenly you find you've arrived at the top. You look up and there's no more white, only blue; and you wonder why it's so blue, and then you realize you're inside the sky. You look down, out, over, across, around, and there—gathered up in countless white peaks out of reach of cable TV, divorce courts, PCBs, CIAs or IOUs, Flag Day, interest rates, canned meats, traffic jams or the Super Bowl—is the top of the world. You bring your Granny Smith apple up to your mouth to take a bite, but before you even touch the skin with your teeth, it's already spitting its seeds out.
"Do you know how thick this glacier is?" I asked a small convivial group of Swiss hikers who had welcomed us to the top by yodeling in four-part harmony.